Commercially valuable

You've seen how simple design is good for designers, and good for developers. You might not be surprised to see that it's also good for businesses. Simplicity sells. Many people's eyes are being opened to the moral grey areas of modern business, and they don't seem to like it. Simple design helps companies pull back from the temptation of buying and selling data, filling their websites with bloated tracking scripts, and trying to squeeze every last penny out of their customers.

Gerry McGovern believes that it's time for a more honest, more useful, simpler approach:

We are seeing the emergence of an anti-visual design movement, as more and more customers are becoming distrustful of smiling faces, soft tones and soft language. As customers' eyes are opened to the reality of how most organizations actually treat them, we're getting banner blindness, marketing blindness, advertising blindness, communication and PR spin blindness. For too long, beauty has been used to cover for the beast of greed and narcissism ... Simplicity, usefulness, functionality, details and facts, transparency; these are the pillars of the new digital design. We trust what we can quickly and easily use but only as long as it's useful.

Often the focus of companies and their designs seems to be on things other than the people who give them money. These waters are muddied even further by companies that don't make money from their users at all, but that's a topic for another book. In the majority of cases, thinking about the people you're serving is a pretty safe bet. None of them are going to turn away from more simple, more honest, less bloated.

Nick Heer nicely summarises that many companies don't seem to be thinking about their users when making design or technology decisions:

But a lot of the stuff we're seeing is a pile-up of garbage on seemingly every major website that does nothing to make visitors happier — if anything, much of this stuff is deeply irritating and morally indefensible ... The combination of huge images that serve little additional purpose than decoration, several scripts that track how far you scroll on a page, and dozens of scripts that are advertising related means that text-based webpages are now obese and torpid and excreting a casual contempt for visitors.

Even those designers who claim they're thinking about their users might not be. A few years ago the word "delight" seemed to be very popular. That doesn't seem to be the case now. Perhaps because delight wasn't what our users needed either? Erika Hall suggests that focusing on delight is focusing on the wrong thing. Other qualities, she suggests, are more timeless.

Talking about creating "delightful" user experiences is actually user-hostile when it wrongly presumes that your customer wants to be emotionally involved with your service at all. Fast and invisible are often the better parts of delight.

Google is one of the most successful companies in the world, and that success was built on their search engine. It has always had a very simple home page - famously so. Erika Hall uses their example to teach us that you don't need the extras.

Over time there have been various vain efforts by third-parties to “redesign Google” by adding uncalled-for visual style ... This is a lesson that digital designers continue to cash checks by forgetting. Fast, easy, and useful beats all.

Branding is often seen and thought of as a visual exercise. Logos, colours, gradients, and platform style guides can all reinforce the brand of a company. It's easy to assume that to have a brand, then, you need to have a lot of visual design. Gerry McGovern doesn't think so. Just as "simple" is part of Google's brand, it can be part of yours too. And you don't need visual design to show that you're simple. Craigslist is a brand millions of people trust and look to every day around the world. Their site could be called "ugly".

If your product is actually useful then don't be afraid to show off how useful it is. Don't hide behind big stupid stock images that say absolutely nothing. Don't suffocate your customers with empty marketing jargon when you can actually say something useful. For organizations that are useful, marketing and communication should stress the use ... Unless you need to lie to customers, your branding is your simplicity. Your branding is your usefulness. Every time a customer can find something quickly and easily, that's branding. If the product you make starts every single time without fail, that's branding. Transparent pricing is branding. Great customer service is branding. Branding can be about what is good and what is useful.

Of course, there are many successful companies that make heavy use of modern, flashy visual design, and are successful. The important point is that you have a choice between simple and complicated. And successful companies have shown, again and again, that simple is just a powerful an approach as complicated, as Ryan Bigge tells us.

Boring doesn't always save lives, but it usually improves them. The titans of the web — Wikipedia, Reddit, Google, Amazon, Dropbox, GitHub — look boring when compared to Snapchat, The Outline, or Bejeweled. But boring companies have millions of repeat users because their products actually work.

The benefits of simplicity aren't only an option for new products. They represent a huge opportunity for crowded, old-fashioned markets to reinvent themselves. Steve Ellis at the Change Sciences Group tells us that industries like banking have a chance to impress their users more:

There's an opportunity for banks and credit unions to retool products and services around simplicity as their central value proposition and make good on that proposition with the right kind of product and interactive design.

And organisations that pursue simplicity can find great results. Look at how Ida Aalen and the Norwegian Cancer Society improved their results by simplifying their design:

The previous NCS homepage had several banners and menu items pointing to different ways of supporting the NCS. Today, there's just the “Support us” item in the menu, and the banners are gone. Despite this, the effect on the digital fundraising has been astounding ... The number of one-time donations has tripled (up 198%). The number of regular donors registering each year has quadrupled (up 288%). The total sum from regular donors each year has quintupled(!) (up 382%)

Such massive changes, which resulted from removing things rather than adding anything, might surprise some people. It gets at the idea that often the things which have the biggest impact are not necessarily related to visual design at all. Visual design can help to highlight, or to deliver, but what are you highlighting and delivering? Mikael Cho tells us that companies like Apple aren't necessarily successful because of their visual design, but because they're telling the right story, and visual design is one way to deliver it.

Because we've seen the results of visual beauty in product design, we expect putting this level of focus on visual beauty in our brand's message will have the same effect. I've seen companies spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars perfecting a website, email, or ad's visual design while spending the last few hours on writing the words that will make up that design. Our intense focus on visual design can blind us from focusing on the most important part of the message: The story.

The same article goes on to say that their own attempts to tell a better story made a difference.

Though this example is limited in that it was constrained to people in our community who might prefer a more story-oriented approach (since this is our usual style), it supported our hunch that beauty isn't always best. And that being more authentic (i.e. telling our story just like we'd tell it to a friend) has a bigger impact than we might expect.

One of the most powerful things about telling a story is that it often takes little more than words. Of course, visuals can be added to support the story, when necessary. Since, as the article points out, it can lead directly to sales, this is one of the most cost efficient ways of being commercially successful.

Telling a good story, whether that's through email, film, or any medium, creates a connection. And it's this connection that leads to attention, which leads to trust, which leads to sales.

This truth is key to even those companies that do rely on very advanced visuals to make a living. Ed Catmull at Pixar makes it clear:

For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn't matter if you aren't getting the story right.

Performant → ← Easy to implement Back to the table of contents